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Health Topics: Does Your Go-To Hangover Cure Actually Work?

Just like your brain after a night of excessive drinking, the science behind hangovers is a little fuzzy
Photo by: iStock/Vasakna
Sometimes there isn't enough coffee in the world.

Lexi Williams
Posted: May 2, 2017

Many of us like to believe we're well past our days of waking up feeling a bit wooly, but the fact is, hangovers can happen to the best of us—and to add injury to insult, they get worse with age. So if you had too much bubbly at a party, or one glass more of Merlot proved to be one glass too many, what do you do to combat the headache, nausea, fatigue and shakiness that might afflict you the following day?

For ancient Romans, the "best" way to recover after a wild bacchanal was to eat fried canary for breakfast. According to Irish legend, burying yourself in wet river sand will ease your head after too many pints. Medieval European overindulgers believed consuming raw eel could counteract the effects of too much booze-driven merriment.

You may scoff at these remedies, but how much better are our modern-day day-after rituals? There's not a lot of science-backed information about hangovers—we still don't even know why we get them. And if we can't pinpoint the cause, how can we expect to have a cure?

"Nobody knows what causes it," Jonathan Howland, professor at Boston University and director of the injury prevention center at Boston Medical Center told Wine Spectator. "So to say that you're going to cure a hangover, or prevent a hangover, or you're just going to magically take care of all the symptoms, well, that's maybe stretching it a bit."

But don't lose hope. Just because there's no proven end-all be-all antidote for your post-wine woes, there are still some proven methods for feeling better. "There are various things that can treat symptoms of hangover that are perfectly legitimate," Howland said.

Ya gotta hydrate!

Water is at the top of the list for anyone looking to treat a hangover. "Lots of water, and my personal favorite, coconut water—loaded with electrolytes—can help the issue of dehydration and really make us feel better," said registered dietician Isabel Smith via email.

But while rehydrating is important, especially after a long night of alcohol, studies suggest that dehydration is just one reason we feel so bad after drinking too much. Hangovers are caused by different reactions as our bodies process alcohol—a lot of the effects we feel while hungover are due to dehydration, but even if we are hydrated, there are plenty of other factors. So while you absolutely should drink lots of water after a night on the town, don't expect to make a miraculous recovery because of it.

OK, so what about the harder stuff? "Does the hair of the dog work? It does, actually, but that is probably the worst possible thing you can do," said Thomas Kash, associate professor at the University of North Carolina Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.

It's well-known that a bloody mary at brunch might make you feel better temporarily, dulling the pain, but it's only prolonging the inevitable, and could leave you with a worse hangover than the one you were trying to get rid of. Kash and his fellow researchers also stress that a prolonged pattern of drinking to avoid hangovers can lead to dangerous habits.

If you can't imbibe away your hangover pain, what about eating? Many hungover folks indulge in fatty foods, believing it soaks up the alcohol. Unfortunately, research suggests this is a myth. According to the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, a coalition of international researchers, hangovers develop as your blood-alcohol concentration is dropping. So if you're hungover, there's not really any alcohol present in the stomach for the food to soak up.

So why do people think this method helps? "It could be that they were just hungry," Kash said. "They have a headache, they're tired, they feel kind of sick, but they're hungry on top of it."

Take 2 of these …

According to Damaris Rohsenow, associate director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, many researchers cite inflammation, brought on by different factors like the presence of congeners in the alcohol you drink or the release of chemicals in the body called cytokines, as a key cause of hangovers. So if you pop anti-inflammatory painkillers when you have a raging hangover headache, you may be getting straight to the source of the matter.

But remember, not all over-the-counter painkillers are created equally. Acetaminophen, for example, is processed in the liver, so taking it after overdoing alcohol can cause serious damage. Aspirin and ibuprofen are considered safer, but you should never exceed the recommended dosage, since there is still a small risk of damaging the stomach lining.

And wait until the morning after to take them—if you take them before bed after a night of drinking, not only is there a higher risk of damage (since there's still alcohol in your system), but it's also likely you'll still be asleep when the painkillers reach their peak effectiveness.

What about those miracle pills advertised? Quick-fix products like Blowfish—an FDA-approved tablet that claims to "make you feel like a human again" with its formula of aspirin and caffeine—have made headlines in recent years.

But just like all of the aforementioned tactics, researchers insist that these "cures" will only address a few symptoms, and each person will respond to them differently.

A hangover spa?

While science may not have a silver bullet for hangovers, that hasn't stopped people from selling remedies. And there may be partial merit to some of them. A new trend in hangover treatment has been popping up in party cities like Las Vegas, Miami, New York and London: Intravenous hydration therapy. "Doctors, nurses, firefighters, people in the military have been using IV therapy long before it's been available to the general public," said Johnny Parvani, emergency-room physician and CEO of Reviv, a medical spa that provides non-emergency IV treatments.

Not only does IV therapy help you rehydrate, but it could also directly address another possible cause for hangovers. "Ultimately, alcohol is converted into carbon dioxide and water, but the intermediaries between the alcohol and the final end product are some toxic metabolites," said Parvani. "Fluids are the most effective way of flushing all of these things out." It could put a spring back in your step—if you're willing to shell out between $99 to $300.

Those who prefer to "sweat it out" with exercise (and elicit eye-rolls from their less athletically inclined peers) are encouraged to do so, but with caution. "Sweating a little bit sometimes can make you feel better," said New York–based wellness coach Danielle Pashko. "Through sweat you excrete toxins. But I wouldn't tell somebody to go for a run if they're not feeling up to it. If you're not feeling well, you could do a leisurely walk or something easy." And if you do choose to exercise, make sure you're drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated.

"I think there's probably not a miracle cure out there," Kash said. And there may never be, he adds, since medical research tends to focus on more pressing matters than your aching head after a night of Prosecco. "People are more concerned with binge drinking and heavy alcohol dependency."

Unfortunately for our Sunday morning selves, there doesn't seem to be a real hangover "cure" out there, just different ways to cope with the symptoms. So if you want to stay indoors all day and order pizza, go for it. If you'd rather pump vitamins into your bloodstream and then run a few miles, more power to you. As long as you stay hydrated and listen to your body—and remember that the only real way to avoid a hangover is to drink in moderation—do what feels best for you. It should only last a few hours, anyway.

Dana Richardson
Memphis, TN —  May 3, 2017 12:57pm ET
I rarely go to bed without drinking a cold Coke, glass of water and 2 doses of Excedrin Migraine. But when I do, I find that force feeding myself as early in the AM as possible the following Hangover Cure items is a must: caffeine - Coke or at least 2 cups of coffee; potassium - whole banana; electrolytes - whole bottle (bigger the better) Gatorade. It is not an instant cure but functionality is on the horizon and the afternoon calls for celebrating with a glass of vino.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  May 3, 2017 5:58pm ET
Frequent or severe hangovers after reasonably moderate drinking may be a sign of liver disease. Having a "liver panel" blood test as part of a routine checkup might be a good idea if you often feel hungover. Liver disease is an all too often silent killer.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

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